Dogged by staffing issues and aging infrastructure, the timely and accurate reading of the city’s water meters has been a long-running issue in Great Bend. But, a divided City Council Monday night authorized moving forward with a public hearing on the $2.1 million project to install an automated meter reading system to help alleviate the problem.
“The timely and accurate reading of water meters has been an ongoing issue for many years,” City Administrator Kendal Francis said. “Reading meters at a fast enough pace to read the entire route within the billing cycle leads to errors in data entry, which in turn leads to re-reads and billing errors.”
The original plan was to utilize federal COVID-19 recovery stimulus American Rescue Plan funding to purchase the system. The city will be getting about $2 million, however half was already promised to a Great Bend Economic Development effort to encourage downtown loft construction by helping pay for sprinkler system installation.
The ARP funds will distributed in two allocations with the second one at least 12 months away, Francis said. So, as a plan B, they were already prepared to apply for a loan through the Kansas Department of Health and Environment Kansas Public Water Supply Loan Fund to cover the full cost.
This will be A 20-year, fixed-interest-rate loan with no penalty for pre-payment. As of this March, the interest rate would be 1.3%.
Francis said they would like to get it paid off in 15 years to make financial room to accommodate for maintenance as the equipment ages.
The KDHE requires a public hearing be held prior to the council officially authorizing the loan application, Francis said. This has been set for 6:30 p.m. June 21 at the Events Center, 3111 10th Street.
With some on the council balking at the price, “obviously, this is a contentious item,” Ward 3 Councilman Cory Urban said. “I’d like to see some of the public show up if they have issues.”
Just setting the hearing doesn’t commit the city to anything, Urban said.
Why is this an issue?
An analysis of meter reads since April 2018 shows the average monthly billing estimations to be 17%, which equates to approximately 1,037 estimations. Slowing down to allow for more accurate reads, forces estimations on meters, which also creates billing issues, Francis said.
City personnel at the meeting complained of the many calls they receive from customers complaining about water bills, their accuracy and the usage estimates.
The city has about 6,100 commercial and residential water meters that are already on a rotating replacement schedule.
Other factors that contribute to the problem are weather that prevent daily reading and employee absences.
“The city added another position in March 2019 and that helped alleviate estimations, but accuracy did not improve,” Francis said. “Hiring and retaining quality employees who are able to both quickly and accurately read meters has been a challenge.”
It is a stressful job that requires working in the elements for low pay, he said. “We have had utilized eight different meter readers since adding the second reader, and just last week one of the current readers gave their notice.”
Currently, he said the city has two very capable employees. However, one has already applied for other openings within the city and it is believed that the other has found different employment as well. “Hiring and retraining new meter readers is a significant cost to the City in both money and lost productivity,” Francis said.
“The answer to this, in my opinion, is technology,” he said.
The automated solution
“Technology provides the answer to these recurring issues,” he said. Automated meter reading systems record the usage and send the readings via radio waves to a collector and computer system mounted in a vehicle. Those are then downloaded into the city’s billing software, and the entire town could be read in less than one day.
Manually, by walking meter to meter, a ready must read one meter every three minutes to get every meter read in a billing cycle The city runs four billing cycles.
Now, it takes about one week to read on cycle’s worth of meters and a second week for follow-up re-reads.
In addition, “as water meters age, they slow down, and lose accuracy by letting water pass through them without being metered,” Francis said. The installation of new meters is anticipated to raise annual revenues between 1% and 3% due to their increased measuring accuracy, and the AMR will further enhance that by providing both timely and accurate readings.
The prospect of an AMR system has been discussed for several years, Francis said. As such, as staff replaces meters, they have been installing AMR compatible meters that can be retrofitted with radio transmitters which will help reduce the cost, “should we choose to make the investment.”
As for the current employees, they would be reassigned within the utilities department, Francis said. As with any technology, there can be glitches so there will be a need for a meter tech position that services meters and the AMR system.
From the start of the bidding process to completion would take about six to eight months, Francis said. After the bidding, the final price could be lower.
A high cost
“I can’t see spending that kind of money,” Ward 4 Councilman Junior Welsch said. He was also concerned about the possibility of jobs being eliminated.
Ward 1 Councilman Alan Moeder was also upset at the cost. He suggested adding a $2 monthly fee to bills to pay for the meters.
Last fall, the city hiked utility rates by about 20%. This was to play catchup for years of fee stagnation, but also to pay for water system upgrades, Francis said.
“This was all done with this in mind,” Francis said. And, there may be some push-back from the public should rates go up more.
The loan would be for the full price, but it could be possible to tap the second half of the ARP funds to cover half of it. And, just because the loan is for $2.1 million doesn’t mean the city has to accept the full amount.
There are also grant opportunities as well, but they would only cover a portion of the cost and the application process would delay the project into next year.
Voting for the hearing were Urban, Ward 2 Councilman Kevyn Soupiset, Ward 1 Councilwoman Lindsey Krom-Craven and Ward 3 Councilman Davis Jimenez. Oppsed were Moeder, Welsch, and Ward 2 Councilwoman Jolene Biggs.
Great Bend City Council meeting at a glance
Here is a quick look at what the Great Bend City Council did Monday night:
• Voted to move forward with a public hearing for an automated water meter reading project.
• Approved the purchase of Police Department body armor vests and vest carriers from Baysinger’s Uniform and Supply for $44,550, and pouches from Zero 9 Holsters for $4,613.40.
The body armor is only warranted by the manufacturer for five years and will be out of warranty soon, Police Chief Steve Haulmark said. The department has been budgeting $7,500 dollars each year for this purpose during years 2019, 2020 and 2021 for a balance of $22,500.
Additionally, they have a balance of $28,735.14 in the vest grant fund, and is a possibility the city will receive partial reimbursement through the Patrick Leahy Bulletproof Vest Partnership, as we have in the past, but that has not been made available as of yet.
As is, the department has balance available of over $51,000 for this purchase.
• Held a 20-minute executive session to discuss purchasing property for a new Law Enforcement Center. After returning to open session, no action was taken.
• Adopted an ordinance updating ambulance service fees.
The current fees were established in April 2014 and haven’t been updates since, so the fire Department staff has conducted a survey of the surrounding ambulance charges as well as the allowable charges from Blue Cross and Blue Shield and Medicare, Fire Chief Luke McCormick said.
The following fees shall be charged for ambulance service to each patient occupying an ambulance:
Basic life support, non-emergency - $425
Basic life support, emergency - $600
Advanced life support, non-emergency - $475
Advanced life support, emergency - $750
Advanced life support 2/advanced ALS - $900
Non-transport with drugs - $100, plus cost of drugs
Non-Emergency without drugs or transport after three in one year - $100
• Approved the purchase of a new pothole patching truck from Dodge City International for $162,622.96. This includes an HD Industries patch hopper on an International truck chassis.
The Public Works Street Division is replacing a 1995 Ford ProPatch that is currently out of service.
• Adopted a resolutions declaring the structures at 1205 Odell and 1714 Adams as unsafe and dangerous.
Public hearings in these matters are set for 6:30 p.m. July 6, 2021, at 6:30 p.m. at the Great Bend Events Center, 3111 10th Street.
• Heard a report from Lynn Fleming, Lynn Fleming, executive director of the Great Bend Housing Authority, on the renovation of the High Rise at 1101 Kansas Ave.
• Authorized a fireworks display at the Expo Grounds on July 3 for the Fourth of July celebration. Also approved was spending $5,000 for the show.
This marks the second year the city has sponsored the event and moving it to the night before July 4 has been successful, Community Coordinator Christina Hayes said.
• Authorized a fireworks display at Veterans Memorial Park for Great Bend Bat Cats home games on June 4 or 5 and July 2.
• Heard a report from City Administrator Kendal Francis. He focused on projects in the city.
• Approved abatements at: 2522 6th, accumulation of trash/refuse, Theresa Walls; 1814 Adams, accumulation of trash/refuse, Steven Favela; 1202 Morphy, accumulation of trash/refuse, John Melton; 1206 Odell, accumulation of trash/refuse, Kristy Stiggins; and 2525 12th, accumulation of trash/refuse, Eduardo Torres.